“If Turkey does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits, I will totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey (I’ve done before!),” Trump tweeted on Monday, as controversy about his announcement built. He added the next day that “unforced or unnecessary fighting by Turkey will be devastating to their economy and to their very fragile currency.”
Only hours later, it seemed those warnings wouldn’t be heeded. On Wednesday, Turkey’s government launched a limited operation in Syria, with media broadcasting footage of explosions in Syria’s border towns. In a statement, Trump said Turkey had “invaded” Syria, adding that “the United States does not endorse this attack and has made it clear to Turkey that this operation is a bad idea.”
Officials remain unsure whether Turkey was making a symbolic move inside the border, or whether Turkish forces are planning to immediately press deeper into Syria and risk further conflict with Kurdish fighters. But that’s hardly the only uncertainty: It remains unclear what Turkey could do that would prompt the United States to respond and what that response would actually achieve.
Trump has used U.S. economic might to punish Turkey before. Last August, Trump authorized a dramatic increase in tariffs on Turkish steel and aluminum as retaliation in a diplomatic standoff with Ankara over Turkey’s detention of Andrew Brunson, a pastor from North Carolina.
That move — an unusual use of tariffs, a tool designed for trade policy, for clear political aims — had an immediate effect on Turkey’s troubled economy, causing the Turkish lira to lose more than 18 percent of its value in one day on Aug. 10, 2018.
However, the president has a complicated relationship with Erdogan, a world leader who seems to be able to talk Trump’s language despite their many differences. Though the United States and Turkey are frequently at odds in a number of foreign policy areas, after Sunday’s announcement Trump repeatedly emphasized the importance of Washington and Ankara’s relationship.
On Tuesday, Trump tweeted a list of the positive aspects of that relationship, including Turkey’s role as a NATO ally and trading partner with the United States, its decision to release Brunson last year, and its position in the F-35 fighter jet program.
Trump glossed over some of the numerous disputes between the United States and Turkey, not least that Ankara moved to release the U.S. pastor only after its economy was brought to the brink of ruin. Just a few months ago, in July, Turkey’s decision to buy Russia’s S-400 missile defense system led to a ban on Turkey’s purchases of the U.S.-made F-35 fighter jet and the threat of sanctions.
But Trump and Erdogan appear to get along when they talk privately. The U.S. president has a habit of making big moves in the Middle East after he speaks to his Turkish counterpart on the phone. In December, after a phone call with Erdogan, Trump abruptly announced he would be pulling U.S. troops out of Syria, prompting officials to scramble to contain the move.
Trump and Erdogan had spoken before Sunday’s withdrawal announcement, too. U.S. officials said that the conversation between the two, aimed at patching up their differences after the S-400 spat, began positively. Fox News’s Jennifer Griffin reported Wednesday that a “well-placed source” told her Trump then “went off script” from his team’s talking points.
As recently as last week, U.S. officials were publicly discussing plans for a “buffer zone” in Syria between Turkey and the Kurds. Now that plan appears to have been put on ice, and Erdogan has secured an invitation to the White House on Nov. 13.
Trump is already facing a considerable backlash against his decision to withdraw U.S. troops. Human rights advocates have predicted that Turkey’s planned “safe zone” could turn into a death trap; even Trump’s most ardent political supporters, such as Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), have accused him of abandoning Kurdish allies.
In a statement Wednesday, Trump tried to set his red lines, urging Turkey to protect civilians and safeguard a number of prisons being used to hold fighters from the Islamic State. Brett McGurk, a former U.S. envoy for the fight against the Islamic State, wrote on Twitter that the latter demand made no sense.
If Erdogan pushes much further in the coming days, any response from Trump will probably be economic rather than military. He may use tariffs to squeeze Turkey’s economy as he did last year, or impose sanctions on Turkey as he has done on so many foreign foes in the past. Even if he resists, U.S. lawmakers such as Graham say they hope to have the votes to override his veto to install sanctions.
It remains to be seen how the Turkish government would respond to economic pressure. Erdogan has shown himself repeatedly willing to ignore U.S. interests; his allies view Syria’s Kurds as an existential threat. “Like the United States, Turkey does not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy,” Turkey’s communications director Fahrettin Altun wrote in an op-ed for The Post. “But when monsters attempt to knock down our doors and harm our citizens, we have to respond.”
Though Trump prefers to use economic pressure rather than military strength or diplomatic negotiations, it often fails to produce the desired effect: It is not clear why Turkey would back down in the face of U.S. sanctions when countries such as Iran, North Korea, Russia and Venezuela have not. Speaking to reporters on Wednesday afternoon, Trump suggested that it would ultimately be Erdogan’s decision.
“I’ve gotten him to stop for virtually from the first day that I was in office,” Trump said at the White House. “But they’ve wanted to fight and that’s the way it is and they’ve done it for so long.”